"Walking the Line," is a three-disk compilation of the early work, from 1955-58, for Sam Phillips' Memphis-based Sun Records, by the late country singer/songwriter Johnny Cash, one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. Mind you, Cash left Sun for Columbia in 1958, seeking greater artistic freedom; he wanted to record more widely; folk, gospel, etc., and many of his biggest hits, such as "John Henry," "Don't Take Your Gun to Town," and "Ring of Fire," were recorded for Columbia. This fact makes the album at hand a more likely purchase for the artist's most devoted country fans-- although it is quite reasonably priced.
"I Walk the Line," his signature tune, is, of course, included. It was his fourth recording for Sun to break into the charts: it shot to Billboard's #1, staying on the charts for a stunning 43 weeks, eventually selling over two million copies. It retains its power to this day, showcasing his driving "chick-a-boom" guitar work and hustling band; his distinctive bass/baritone voice, and his dark outlook - he once said "the beast in me is caged by frail and fragile bars."
The album's also got the towering "Folsom Prison:" throughout his life, Cash was always particularly conscious of the men in prison, once saying that "convicts are the best audience I ever played for." There's a story that Merle Haggard, another important country artist, once told Cash that every one of the three concerts Cash gave at California's San Quentin Prison was very important to him. Cash replied that he didn't remember Haggard's being in his band, to which Haggard said that he'd been incarcerated.
Cash had impeccable working class credentials. He was born to Arkansas white tenant farmers, one of seven children. During the Depression, his father was given land under a New Deal program, and, from the age of five, Cash picked cotton, or whatever else was growing, with his family. Many of these earlier songs reflect this background. He went to Detroit seeking work as a young man, in 1950, finding himself a job in an auto factory in Pontiac, Michigan. He enlisted in the Air Force. Upon his discharge in 1954, he married, and moved to Memphis to try to break into the music business. While he was trying, he worked a variety of jobs, including appliance salesman. He auditioned for Sun, and was rejected, but by 1955 he was recording there, and in 1956, he fulfilled a lifelong ambition by being invited to play the Grand Ole Opry.
In 1985 he organized The Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. I was lucky enough to catch them once, in New York's Central Park, on an enchanted big sky spring evening I'm not likely ever to forget. No one else will ever have the chance, but we do have this surely worth every penny album.
"Folsom Prison Blues" was the flipside of Johnny Cash's second single. "I walk the Line" was the A side of his third single. Has any other recording artist sounded so mature at this stage of his or her career? With the possible exception of Presley, how many recording artists have recorded tracks on their second and third discs that continue to resonate through the years the way these tracks do?
I remember buying an earlier variant on this set, which would have been from Charly/Snapper way back, at least twenty, years ago. It was cheap and I didn't have any Sun Cash. I only had Columbia Cash and that on vinyl plus some odd later stuff on tape. And this was when Cash was in the wilderness years, way out of fashion and well before the Rubin American Series.
The Charly set was an absolute eye/ear opener. I knew the big tracks of course - the ones I've mentioned plus "Big River", "Get Rhythm" and "Hey Porter", and others less well. At the time my main memories of Cash were of his 60's Columbia tracks - "Ring of Fire", "Ira Hays", "Orange Blossom Special", "It ain`t me babe", etc. I had the feeling at the time that the Sun material, which hadn`t been that heavily promoted in the 50`s in the UK, was relatively primitive and limited instrumentally. I was partially right on the second point though that the same basic guitar and bass sound, the "boom chicka boom", actually continued well into his career. Producers tended to record or overdub on top of this sound. Even Sam Phillips did it for quite a number of his Sun records. However on the first point I was totally wrong as the songs and sounds on this set clearly demonstrate. The vocal style with that resonant bass voice seemingly from someone much older than his years, was already fully in place with Phillips adding more depth via his echo techniques. The instrumental style was also there with those little flurries on the bass strings punctuating Cash's rhythm guitar.
The songs themselves are varied. From both sides of his first single "Cry, cry, cry / Hey Porter" which was about as close to rockabilly as he would get, to excellent teen ballads written by Jack Clement, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" and "Guess things happen that way" (both complete with Jordanaires style accompaniment), to straight country as in Charlie Feathers` "I forgot to remember to forget" as also recorded by Elvis, to sophisticated ballads like the superb, "Ways of a woman in love", co-authored by Charlie Rich, to traditional folk items like the "Rock Island Line" and "The Wreck of the old 97", to Hank Williams covers, to new classics from the man himself like "Big River" and the marvellous "Home of the Blues".
There are plenty of critics who don't look too favourably on the overdubbing additions that Sam Phillips was wont to apply but maybe because I've grown so accustomed to them I have to admit that they're OK with me. Certainly on a set this long they do add to the variety of sounds. I'd like to see some of the session details because that sounds a bit like Charlie Rich on piano on some of the tracks.
Johnny Cash's body of work for Sun was as impressive as any of his work for any of the other labels he recorded for. It fully deserves the title "the legendary Sun recordings" and this album gives an excellent overview of this important first phase of Cash's career.
This 3 disc, 53 track box set does a great job of anthologising Johnny Cash's formative years as a recording artist at the Sun studios.
From the off it was clear that Cash was a major talent, with his pleasing and adaptable slightly off key bass voice and sense of rhythm. In this set we get the classic early hits (walk the line, ring of fire etc) in the country syle, but we also see some of the more varied material (e.g, ballad of a teenage queen, rock island line) incorporating a range of styles from a pop approach to blues to boogie. It shows just what he was capable of, and that he would still have been a success even if he hadn't settled on country.
The CDs are packed with great entertaining sing along tracks which are consistently good. It's a great showcase which collects a bit more than just the usual suspects found on a 1 disc best of. Buy this, then listen to the American recordings to hear where the man in black finished the musical journey started here.